To Survive Beautifully

What does surviving beautifully entail? In this post, Lana discusses what it took for her to look past her cancer insecurities and feel beautiful again. Read more to learn about what she did - from researching, to skin programs, to starting her own organization.

I am four and a half years old.

That's what I often want to say when people ask my age. Or rather that my new life has existed for four and a half years. This is how long I have been a survivor of breast cancer. I was diagnosed in December 2007, four days after my 41st birthday. This date has changed me more than any other date in my life. During these past three and a half years, I have suffered more and rejoiced more; was closest to dying and was living more than ever before. I used to hate the word "survivor" thinking it to be very passive, until I became one myself, and realized that often surviving is the bravest thing you can do. To survive beautifully - to emerge from grief, from pain, from loss, to take control of your own identity, to retain dignity and to be happy with what you see in the mirror- is the most proactive thing you can do for yourself.

The year I battled cancer was the longest year of my life.

I fought cancer every single day. I fought it actively and bravely. Not only with surgeries and needles, but with lipstick and self tanner (which, by the way, I learned you can use during chemotherapy)! I was not going to allow cancer to rob me of my-self image, my femininity and my ability to look in the mirror and know who I am. I fought it with knowledge I gained with hours of research. I went to work every day; attended events; traveled to South America and California and flew in a hot air balloon. I worked out with a trainer three times a week. I also vomited after almost every session and cried alone in dark corners. I have survived beautifully that year and every day since then - not only physically but also while retaining my dignity, and surviving in my soul.

After my mastectomy was performed (by an excellent breast surgeon, Dr. Karen Arthur), I began the first step of my reconstruction surgery. Being in the elegant, soothing offices of a plastic surgeon, I began to see hope that my breast would be reconstructed; that I would not have to live a life with blatant deformity. However, I also began to understand that it will take many steps to get there. After my mastectomy and chemotherapy, I wanted information: contemporary, sophisticated information how to take of myself and my appearance during my treatments.

I had questions.

Simple questions like "Can I use a self-tanner to brighten my completion?" to "What will my breast look like after the expander is fully inflated?" My husband was having a high school reunion and I needed to understand what kind of a dress I could buy. I never dreamed that information would be so difficult to obtain. Oncologists do not know how to deal with aesthetic issues, few dermatologists have specific knowledge about issues faced by people undergoing treatment, and plastic surgeons don't take pictures of breasts going through reconstruction, only the before and after pictures at best. I could not blame them. They are all incredibly busy trying to keep people alive and living for a long time.

I found articles providing generic information, and books written by doctors with great information. But I didn't have the time or patience to learn medical terms. Every night I read blogs and comments of women just like me asking questions.

So I found answers on my own.

I did research. I worked with Dr. Anca Tchelebi, a former radiation oncologist, to devise a skin program for the duration of my treatments as well as after. I learned by trial and error about reconstructive surgery. When I did not like the result of my nipple reconstruction, I had another surgery to get it to look more realistic. Since then, I counseled and supported numerous women about aesthetic questions during their treatments. I am more assured than ever of the importance of self-image for women.

Last year, I partnered up with an amazing woman, a jewelry designer and college professor, Victoria Tillotson, to create a project called Surviving Beautifully. We are creating a reference guide and a website that will answer beauty, reconstruction and other aesthetic questions for people undergoing cancer treatments. The project is dealing with such issues as breast preservation vs. reconstruction, dental issues during chemotherapy, skin changes, and hair and wig solutions. For more information, please see our website , Facebook and Twitter. Please contact us! We want to hear from people about their aesthetic concerns and questions so that we can directly pose them to the experts and we want criticism and comments so that we can develop the most comprehensive and thorough guide available to give information, choices, and above all, hope. I think Helen Mirren made a very powerful statement when she said, "The way we look is part of our human condition. It is tribal and social and personal. I don't think it's superficial; it's quite profound."